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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Opera Review: A Total Eclipse of His Art

Rod Gilfry is the loser in David Lang's new opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Alone in the dark: Rod Gilfry in the loser.
Photo by Richard Termine for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The BAM NextWave Festival opened last week with the world premiere of David Lang's new and thoroughly unconventional opera the loser. Starring veteran baritone Rod Gilfry and pianist Conrad Tao, this probing monodrama casts a scathing narrative eye on the merits of the quest for artistic perfection and the narrow world of virtuoso pianists in waiting, preparing for a hoped-for launch into the stratosphere of the classical concert circuit. This writer saw the second performance on Thursday night.

Initial press for the loser indicated that this would be an opera about pianism, specifically the artistry of Glenn Gould. A Canadian virtuoso, Gould's unconventional approach to music-making and utter devotion to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (particularly his first, famous recording of the Goldberg Variations) made him a titan among 20th century pianists. An enigmatic figure, his eccentric mannerisms and early death combined to elevate him to the status of a cult hero.

On arrival at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, the audience discovered that only the mezzanine level of that historic venue was used for audience seating.  Mr. Gilfry was the focus of the entire show, atop a narrow, tower-like construct purpose-built in the middle of the theater. The singer smiled politely to the audience, and began to unfold his hour-long narrative. The small chamber ensemble (members of Bang on a Can) were arrayed in the upper reaches of the orchestra level below. Forty-five minutes in, Mr. Tao was  revealed (at his piano) on a platform mounted far upstage.

Over the course of eight contiguous scenes, Mr. Gilfry used his powerful, muscular baritone and genuine, almost physical charisma to declaim details about his character's childhood, about his tutelage as a young pianist with the great Vladimir Horowitz, and most centrally, about his friendship, rivalry and total eclipse by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, himself one of the most important and influential pianists of the last century.

Mr. Lang provides chamber textures, dense chords for percussion and low strings, and spare accompaniment. Otherwise, the composer gets out of his own way and lets the text and Mr. Gilfry's voice carry the day. The libretto is pulled directly from 1983 German novel by Thomas Bernhard, sung here in an English translation. The text details the storyteller's friendship with Gould, the mastery of Horowitz, and a third figure, the narrator's friend Wertheimer. The death of Gould at the young age of 51 and Wertheimer's subsequent suicide provides all of the opera's story, although the events are related in the disordered, rambling stream of the narrator's consciousness.

At times, the tone of the loser is rueful and even playful, with Mr. Gilfry's smiles and professorial delivery serving as a veneer for boiling hate and black, black despair. The staging, with Mr. Gilfry like some great bird of prey jessed to to his roost lends itself to that sense of crisis in the character. One  wonders if the narrator might hurl himself, like a Tosca or Brunnhilde from his lofty perch as the story progresses, but there is no such glorious exit.

This is not an opera for memorable tunes or hummable themes, save perhaps the Bach-like, repetitive fragments that Mr. Tao played at his distant keyboard. These became the central focus of the work in its last pages, a wistful song that the narrator can no longer produce. In the end, the loser seems to say, there are operatic fates that are far worse than death. 

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